The opening weekend saw an exciting, yet nervous opening trio of ties, ensuring that us rugby international junkies have had our spring fix.
Defending champions Wales opened their account with a scrappy win over Italy in Cardiff, a typically shaky opening performance for the Welsh as they managed a 23-15 win over the Azzurri. Italy’s performance was in stark contrast to their stereotypical forward punching style as they looked to run and offload at every opportunity. Despite this it was Wales who went in at half-time 17-3 up after a mistake led to Alex Cuthbert scoring in the corner followed by a poor missed tackle which allowed Jamie Roberts through to hand the second try on a plate for Jonathan Davies’ replacement, Scott Williams. The Welsh defence looked comfortable in the opening 40 minutes, they seemed happy for the Italians to have the ball and wait for the mistake, but when the mistake did come, the resulting Welsh set piece was liable to disappointment.
Complacency crept into Wales’ game in the second half as Italy took the game by the scruff of the neck; getting their reward with a first try which included a forward pass, wrongly given but no doubt deserved as the score was brought back to 17-8. Italy continued their assault as the defending champions started to make mistakes at the breakdown and with ball in hand. This was emphasised when Leigh Halfpenny threw an interception pass to two-try scorer and man of the match Michele Campagnaro who ran in to make it 20-15 and a nervous last 10 minutes for the Welsh.
A final Leigh Halfpenny penalty put the game beyond the Italians grasp but Warren Gatland will no doubt be worried about the Welsh mistakes before going to Dublin to face Ireland next week. The Italians will take heart from their performance, and could have easily snatched the win if it wasn’t for a few missed kicks. Their fresh style of open and expansive rugby should trouble a few teams in this year’s Six Nations but there is a question of whether they have anyone who can break the gain line and score tries other than Sergio Parisse and Michele Campagnaro. Wales pride themselves on their fitness and defence, both of which let them down on Saturday.
England went into their first match against France not knowing what to expect from Les Bleus, and what they got was an all-out attack ready to try and swamp England and that’s exactly what happened. The French took an early 17-3 lead due to two tries from winger Yoann Huget, both of which involved an assist from Lady Luck, but nevertheless were taken well by the Toulouse man. England dominated the later stages of the first period and managed to get a try back before half-time through Mike Brown, to change Stuart Lancaster’s team talk from a dressing down to a mere “go get ‘em”.
The England dominance continued in the second half as England kept chipping away at the lead, with Danny Care and Billy Vunipola repeatedly breaking the gain line. It was Vunipola who made the decisive break after Owen Farrell’s dummy pass split the French defence like a knife through blancmange, his pass to debutant centre Luther Burrell led to England’s second try, and allowed them to complete a comeback that defied the inexperience of the team.
It was the French however, who showed their class in the end. Ironically it was a 19 year old who fronted the experience and ended a typically French backline move with a clever dummy and finish under the posts. Maxime Machenaud put over the conversion and it ended 26-24 to the French. England will no doubt take this as a huge learning curve, whereas the French can be comfortable in the fact that they can play exciting, and efficient rugby when their backs are against the wall. Both teams should expect to be near the top come March.
Ireland made their opening win against Scotland almost look easy. Despite early dominance from the Scots, the typically brutish Irish defence stood strong as Jonny Sexton continued to keep the scoreboard ticking. Dave Denton almost went over for Scotland but again Ireland’s defence came to the rescue as it took 4 defenders to push him out into touch. After that moment it was Ireland’s turn to dominate, and they almost made the most of their dominance right away as Sexton broke through four or five Scottish forwards, before wonderfully passing out wide to Jamie Heaslip who very nearly touched down in the corner, but it was ruled out for a foot in touch. From the resulting lineout, the Irish managed to get that elusive try in the opposite corner through Andrew Trimble, giving the Irish some breathing space before half-time.
The start of the second half continued with Irish ascendancy, and man of the match Jamie Heaslip finally got his try from a rolling maul. A third try was added by Rob Kearney courtesy of some slack Scottish tackling and the Irish ended the opening weekend of the Six Nations with a 28-6 win. Scotland will be dissatisfied with their performance despite a bright start, they faded away and allowed the Irish to assert themselves and play a typically Josef Schmidt game plan, which contained clear elements of his former team, Leinster. Scotland will face England at home next week, and unless they can find a new way of gaining yards other than giving the ball to Dave Denton, then they are going to struggle. Although, stranger things have happened at Murrayfield than a win against a young England team. Ireland will play their second home game in a row against Wales; both teams will no doubt look to improve on error-strewn opening performances before hitting their first ‘tough’ test of the tournament.
Ireland’s win sees them top the table, with Wales in second, followed by the other winners of the weekend; France. England lay in fourth, whereas Italy and Scotland fill the ‘grooves’ so often left by them in the bottom two.
Predictions for Round 2:
Ireland vs. Wales – Saturday 8th February – 2:30pm
Ireland by less than 7 points
Scotland vs. England – Saturday 8th February – 5pm
England by less than 7 points
France vs. Italy – Sunday 9th February – 4pm
France by more than 7 points